My son Boe and I were on the battlefields of Chickamauga last week, looking for--and finding--the precise locations where our maternal great-grandfather FTD Cherry and his brother, Cutler Cherry, were captured by the Union army. The helpful Federal Park Ranger told us he never before had met a family who had two family members captured at Chickamauga. During our day at Chickamauga we came across the moving story of General Helm.
Benjamin Helm graduated from West Point in 1851, just shy of his 20th birthday. He ranked 9th in his class of 42 cadets. He became a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Dragoons (Cavalry) and then served as an instructor at the cavalry school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He served in the U.S. Army for a little over a year before he was diagnosed with inflammatory rheumatism and forced to resign his commission.
Helm then studied law at the University of Louisville and Harvard University, graduating in 1853. In 1855 he was elected to serve in the Kentucky House of Representatives and then was later appointed Kentucky's state attorney. At the outbreak of the Civil War--in spite of his rheumatism--Helm was offered a commission with the Union army. Helm declined the appointment, and instead chose to serve as a field army officer in the Confederate States of America. He began his CSA army career as a colonel, but after two years of brilliant battlefield leadership, he was promoted to general and given charge of the 1st Kentucky Brigade. General Helm died at Chickamauga at the age of 32.
When President Lincoln received the news of General Helm's death, he went into an intense period of private grief. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who was present when Lincoln received the news of Helm's death, reported that the President proclaimed, "I feel as David of old when he was told of the death of Absalom."
General Helm was President Lincoln's brother-in-law.
It was President Lincoln who had offered Helm the position of postmaster for the Union army at the beginning of the Civil War, which Helm declined in order to serve in the Confederacy. Mary Todd Lincoln's niece would later recall the dilemma of the Lincoln's: "A single tear shed for a dead enemy would bring torrents of scorn and bitter abuse on both the President and Mary Todd Lincoln" - even if those Presidential tears were shed for family.
That's why the President and Mary Todd Lincoln grieved in private. The President granted his widowed sister-in-law, Emilie Todd Helm, safe passage to the White House to receive condolences from her family. CSA General Breckinridge informed Helm's widow by letter that her husband "commanded the men of the Orphan brigade like a thorough soldier. He loved them, they loved him, and he died at their head, a patriot and a hero."